Holt Uncensored

Holt Uncensored

 

Member Area

  #246
by Pat Holt

Tuesday, June 26, 2001

 





THOSE DYING BOOK REVIEWS, PART II: BACK FROM THE DEAD
  Announcing the Worst
  Imagining the Best
  Taking a Position
    1. Exploit Anti-Internet Feelings
    2. Spearhead a Movement
    3. Expand the Advertising Base
    4. Make the Book Review a Self-sustaining Business
    5. Include the Universe
LETTERS

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THOSE DYING BOOK REVIEWS, PART II: PATTY'S GREAT IDEA

Announcing the Worst

Let's say you are a newspaper publisher facing a steady decline in circulation, soaring paper costs, unhappy advertisers and a need to cut budgets everywhere.

Why should you even consider publishing a stand-alone book review section, which is generally considered a classic money-loser as well as, your polls and focus groups tell you, the least-read section of the paper.

After all, you're not alone if you decide not to publish a pull-out Book Review. So many newspapers are terminating these sections or cutting back on book review columns that headline news stories and even TV shows have been sympathetic, giving time to newspaper editors who decry losing book review space as a crisis - if a practical reality - of the times.

And yes, you'll go on record to say the loss is tragic, that everything from literacy to literature is at stake, that abandoning the Book Review is tantamount to abandoning the idea of building an informed citizenry as the backbone of democracy.

But it's a luxury to think that a pull-out book review section has a place in the modern newspaper. As you'll also tell the media, you held out as long as you could. The Book Review/daily book column was the last thing to go.

At least you can explain to the public that these cuts are temporary, and that you are personally going to bring the stand-alone book review section back as soon as the economy gets better.

Imagining the Best

So far, that's the story. We've seen it on the Jim Lehrer News Hour (see #245), in the Los Angeles Times and PW Daily, heard it on NPR. Readers have protested, but what can be done? Newspapers are in the throes of "economic despair." Thousands of employees were laid off last week alone. Until the numbers change, nothing can be done.

But now let's say that you are a newspaper publisher taking an opposite stance. Just take a trip into fantasyland for a moment and imagine how this might sound.

While every other newspaper in the country is terminating or cutting back its book review section, you announce that your newspaper is going to ADD a new stand-alone Book Review and ADD a daily book column as well.

Going against the trend does NOT mean losing money (more about this below), you say. It means figuring out a new way to provide critical coverage to books and literature as only a newspaper can.

Now you turn to the TV cameras with pride and say something like this:

  • We are a newspaper committed to reading of all kinds. We want our Book Review to start and lead that critical conversation, to mirror the flow of new books coming through our metropolitan marketplace, to be the first place our voracious readers turn in their discovery of the world through literature.

  • We also want the Book Review as a way to revitalize our connections with schools, libraries, bookstores and literacy programs.

  • We want the Book Review to sponsor writing contests, storytelling hours, book groups, poetry readings and book festivals.

  • Along with the traditional NIE (Newspapers In Education) programs, we want to work with local business - especially computer, e-book and multimedia companies - to bring the vast and magnificent online culture (including our website) to readers of all ages, lifestyles and incomes.

  • We want to do this with every intention of making the Book Review profitable within three years (self-sustaining within two), and we want to invite the community to help us make this goal.

  • We're looking for writers, interns, teachers, editors, artists and, of course, advertisers of all kinds to take part in what could be the greatest partnership undertaken for the sake of literature and the First Amendment of all time.

Taking a Position

Okay, I got a bit overblown at the end, but you get the point. Unlike cutting space for gardening or real estate or church news, hacking away at book review space seems to be an either/or situation. If you add space for book reviews (and use your PR department to drive this home), you can look like a hero.

But continued announcements that publishers are terminating or cutting back on book reviews only confirms what people fear - that newspapers have lost their identity in this electronic age, that they sound increasingly like dinosaurs and that they themselves are dying.

And yet ever since the birth of the Internet, readers have been waiting for newspapers to TAKE A POSITION in favor of their community and their place in it - to show the world why newspapers have not only survived assaults from every direction (TV, radio, free weeklies, the World Wide Web), they deserve that special place on our breakfast table we once turned to with pleasure and anticipation every morning.

And guess what? The tide is turning in newspapers' favor! Here are some ways to take advantage of current trends:

  1. Exploit Anti-Internet Feelings

    Everywhere today we read stories that with the fall of the dotcoms, Internet users are feeling an impatience, even irritation, with aspects of cyberspace that they welcomed only a year or so ago.

    I'm not talking about speed of technology - hooking up with DSL has helped readers zip around the Internet faster than ever (though with its many flaws, DSL currently adds to the annoyance factor).

    I'm talking about what happens when you land on that block of type that provokes the old SEB (Slowdown of the Eye Balls), which in turn sets your teeth on edge as you scroll down thinking, "Will you get to THE POINT." (I hear that some readers feel this way about Holt Uncensored but I'm too busy scrolling down to notice.)

    It's not that we'll ever leave the Internet - usage continues to soar; it's just that maybe the honeymoon is over. Amazon still dazzles, but customers take it for granted and leave it sooner; e-books still intrigue, but the prospect of reading even a chunk onscreen can put an entire nation to sleep.

    Even book reviews on the Internet - some of them gorgeously written - feel too long, too stuffy, too wordy and too digressive to follow in that scrolling, finger-itchy way we're beginning to adapt. I thought the emailed reviews from Powells.com would be exciting, but no: Even the ones that try to hasten the pace by dividing themselves into a "Nutshell" and "Details" section feel labored and soporific.

    So just at the moment that we should feel this Big Shift from newspapers to the Internet, the reverse seems to be happening. We'll always use the Internet but heck, we're Americans: We Want It All. We want to return to that delicious newspaper experience that gives us the world at glance. We want the very lingering and absorbing that just isn't happening on the Internet.

    What a moment in history for the dying newspaper! What a time to bring back the great Book Review sections and celebrate the very experience that even the Internet can't provide - a love of slowing down to read, a GEBR (Give the Eye Balls a Rest) event, a way of discovering new information by soaking up reviews next door to each other, all right on the page and all inviting us to browse mit our coffee und bun!

  2. Spearhead A Movement

    If right NOW is the time to seize the reins, let's call the loss of book review space what it is - a crisis in literature - and let's quit making middle management people run around in circles trying to deal with it.

    The time has come for a summit: Heads of book publishing houses and publishers of newspapers can meet and take part in a series of formal meetings - sponsored, say, by AAP (American Association of Publishers) or ASNE (the American Society of Newspaper Editors) - to talk about the problem as something that concerns us all and that affects posterity and that can be, must be resolved.

    Other groups could host and take part in these meetings - the Authors Guild, National Book Critics Circle, American Booksellers Association, American Library Association, National Writers Union - but the weight of decision-making would fall on book publishers and newspapers as the only players who can make real change happen.

    I'm not talking about price-setting or collusion, heaven knows (if they're worried about that, lawyers can draw up guidelines). I'm talking about book publishers turning AWAY from the cameras and telling newspapers what they said on TV: That book reviews in newspapers are indispensable; that loss of the stand-alone Book Review is a loss of culture itself.

    I'm talking about newspaper publishers looking AWAY from the cameras and into the face of book publishers to explain the kind of support (not in terms of money!) they must have from book publishers and other advertisers to put out a decent Book Review pull-out and daily column.

    We just need some top-down decisions! And the solution is simple: All heads of houses need say is Yes, we'll make it our business to support stand-alone Book Reviews and daily book columns. All newspapers have to say is, Here's our 1-year, 3-year, 5-year plan for the Book Review and weekday column. We believe in it, we commit to it, we'll do it.

    Then give marketing departments at book publishing houses some kind of budget that can help support newspaper book reviews! Give book editors real space in the newspaper - not some dinky reviews in the back of a calendar section but a literate and exciting Book Review pull-out that can cultivate its own readership. These decisions cannot be made from the bottom up.

  3. Expand the Advertising Base

    This point was made in #245 but it's worth repeating here: Newspaper publishers can reverse the negative perception that focus groups and polls have created about the true audience for book review pull-outs. (I donít believe these polls, but letís say theyíre true.) Instead of worrying that the Book Review is the "least read" section in the Sunday newspaper, consider who the target audience is.

    People who read and buy hardcover books today are by definition the most affluent, well-educated, philanthropic, arts-supporting and powerful decision-makers in the circulation base. Nowhere in the newspaper is this unique slice of the financial elite (ranging from the arts to business to academia) as targeted as in the Book Review.

    In fact, book advertisements may be only the first part of the new Book Review campaign: ads about computers, automobiles, cruises, jewelry, wireless technology and the like could constitute a very savvy second step.

    Opening up the Book Review as an advertising channel in this way would require the active and public commitment of top management and crossover backing from advertising to editorial departments over a lengthy period of time. The point is, when a crisis of this nature hits, everybody's got to be on board - you can't put the burden on advertising sales representatives only.

  4. Make the Book Review a Self-sustaining Business

    If there's any hope for financial stability, even profitability, for the stand-alone Book Review, separate the book review department as its own stand-alone business.

    Put the Book Review on its own budget and its own system. Set a realistic but bold one-year, 3-year and 5-year goal, publicize it and stick to it. Have the Book Review editor act as publisher as well, responsible to the newspaper's executive publisher directly.

    Relationships with feature and business editors should of course be maintained; but in terms of the section making it on its own, keep it in a place where it can create its own identity and GROW on its own.

  5. Include the Universe

    As we've learned from the Internet, people love to be included when it comes to solving a problem. Creative brainstorming is much easier when you throw open the doors to a crisis than when you try to keep it hidden.

    Just as Book Reviews can show their own one-year, 3-year, 5-year plans to the world, so can book publishers and newspapers float the ideas they've been sharing in summit meetings to the rest of the universe and ASK FOR HELP.

    That is the most difficult thing for traditional management to do, but boy, does it pay off, especially if you create websites and online conversations for it; seek out related news-serve and discussion groups; set up cyber- and Earth-based town meetings and and keep posting the results, keep asking for help, keep problem-solving as interactive as possible.

    Think of all this as one big PR move: Of the many benefits you get from the flood of responses that will result is a part of the audience that will want to subscribe anew, if only to see how things are going. This could mean new blood for the newspaper, more stories about books, more book sales, and, best of all, new life for the Book Review and book columns everywhere.

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LETTERS

Dear Holt Uncensored:

I really appreciated your recount of the Jim Lehrer News Hour piece about Book Reviews. Terry Smith is a wonderful interviewer, and I'm sorry I missed it.

I am sorrier still at the state of reviews and cutbacks. And I am equally sorry that the publishing industry - for some reason that defies logic - refuses to support the publications that offer reviews and take advertising and marketing seriously.

I adore Jason Epstein, but he is wrong when he says advertising doesn't' work for books. No one can know that. The publishing industry has never utilized advertising - other industries do.

Advertising is not the enemy. All art directors and copywriters are not hacks. (In fact many of them are struggling authors and artists. For instance, Jim Patterson was the Creative Director of an ad agency before the was a novelist. One might draw a conclusion right there).

Contrary to what most publishers think, advertising does not consist of putting an ad that consists of a book cover and quotes in the pages of the New York Times Book Review. Neither is it using co-op dollars to get a book cover in a Barnes & Noble ad that runs in Book Magazine. It's not waiting to see what book is already getting good word of mouth and running column ads in the New Yorker. It's not buying a $5000 website for a book and then just letting the site sit there - waiting for people to come.

Good advertising takes proactive, creative thought. It involves serious planning and a unique approach. It takes professional, dedicated team of trained creative people who work as hard on an ad campaign as authors do on novels. It takes a strategy, a breakthrough idea - not an art department. putting together a glorified sell sheet.

Is there any other industry that ignores the benefits of advertising and marketing to the extent that the publishing industry does? Is there any other industry that professes - almost proudly - that 4 out of 5 of each of their products does not earn back the amount of money that has been invested to bring that product to fruition?

Forgive me for calling a book a product. But when hundreds of thousands of books are shredded because they did not sell, one must view them as products that failed. When one thinks of four-color covers being ripped off and discarded, and naked texts being stacked in endless cartons to be shipped back to the publisher, one must view books as products that failed.

In the last two years, more creative marketing has been done by authors than by publishers. (Both USA Today and the New York Times have recently written about this.) Look at what Anita Diamant, Donna Woolfolk, Doug Cleeg, Neil Gaiman and Adriana Trigiani have done on their own - it may not be what one traditionally thinks of as advertising, but it sure as hell is marketing.

I've heard all the arguments. Books are low-ticket items. Advertising is too expensive. Each book is unique, therefore you can't brand books, therefore advertising doesn't work.

One could go on and on with the negatives.

It's very easy to say something won't work. That way you never have to roll up your sleeves, open your wallet and try it.

M.J. Rose (author, journalist - and yes, previously creative director at an ad agency)


Dear Holt Uncensored:

A detail that caught my eye from the comments Jason Epstein made:"Well sure, but book publishers don't have much money either to throw around," Epstein replied. "We've got to be careful, ....

Judging from the amount of promotional crap and duplicate promotional crap I get in the mail, (usually priority, or even Fedex 2-day), there is money somewhere. I know some of the promotional material is useful. But so much and so glossy! and sent so expensively! I'm guessing the costs for this don't add up to a national ad campaign. But they might buy an ad in our local paper for the book being promoted. People often use the argument of economic constraints to justify not doing something they simply don't want to do.

Another thought about publisher's money - about half the time, large publishers send our catalogs for the coming season by overnight delivery of some variety.

My 2 cents...

Melissa Mackey, manager
R Books
Los Alamos, New Mexico


Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re your column about the American Library Association convention, "And They're Free." Unfortunately - Public Libraries are not free. They aren't anymore free than hospitals or fire and police service.

All the books, CDs and videos that are available to the public cost money. The buildings and air conditioning that house the collections cost money. The salaries of the professional librarians and support staff cost money.

But most California public libraries have experienced a tremendous decline over the last 15 years.

*California ranks 41st nationally in circulation per capita *California currently ranks 49th nationally in (FTE) staff per 25,000 population. *California's ranks 43rd nationally in expenditures for the library collections.

I would like to refer you and your readership to the report, "Variation in Funding and Service Levels Among California Public Libraries" by Colleen Moore and Matthew Newman published by the California Institute for County Government.

Website: http://cicg.org/cicgweb/CICGWEB.home

Last year, both houses of the legislature approved a $15.3 augmentation to the state budget to bring the Public Library Fund up to full funding. This funding was vetoed by the Governor.

[If you scroll down to "A Response to the Budget Cut of the PLF" - it's about halfway down, and the title is in red - you can read for yourself. This page is a report from the CLA lobbyist:

Website: http://cla-net.org/html/legupd2000.html ]

But as you noted in your column, libraries are more than just a repository for books, CDs and Videos. They can be utilized as a PLACE where, "...you can register to vote, find a job, learn about computers and do a hundred other things ...the library stands for inclusion, community, engagement, outreach, networking and social capital."

Not only are the library collections hurting from lack of funding. And not only is the library staff hurting from a lack of funding. But this PLACE, this institution for community, for inclusion and social capital, it, too, is hurting and the people of California are the worse for it.

B. J. Combs
Sacramento, California


Dear Holt Uncensored:

Re your comments on the book review/sports sections allocation of resources: some years ago I was editing the arts/entertainment section (including books) of a Northern California daily, and constantly begging for space and help. The Associated Press released a survey comparing editors' attitudes with those of readers, and-surprise surprise-it indicated the editors ranked the importance of sports to the readers much higher than the readers did. In fact, the readers wanted more lifestyle/arts coverage. Did anybody at my paper pay any attention? Did it influence them to make any changes? HAH!

Sophie Annan Jensen
Santa Rosa, California


Dear Holt Uncensored:

I just wanted to let you know that the Public Library Association Collection Management Committee presented a program on self-published authors on Sunday at the ALA annual conference in San Francisco, and over 200 librarians were there! We were stunned at the attendance.

I told the audience that we on the panel figured one of three things was happening:

*Either these were all the people who were staying in the Hilton and didn't feel like walking to a different location for a program,

*or they were all librarians who, like us, are suddenly getting floods of emails, faxes and phone calls from self-published authors,

*or maybe they WERE the self-published authors, and we'd be really really sorry we put our names and addresses out there.

Just kidding.

We may repeat the program at the Public Library Association conference in Phoenix in March if there's room on the agenda. It's clear the frontiers of print-on-demand (POD), e-books and self-published titles are just beginning to emerge, and it's also clear from discussions with other librarians, that we are eager to step up, learn how to handle these and other new technological innovations, incorporate them into our daily routines, and even help create the market for some of these new formats, as I personally believe libraries did for audiobooks when that format was in its infancy.

Oh, and just for the record, librarians are VERY careful not to violate copyright laws, and nowadays routinely buy multiple copies of titles to satisfy demand. Since we buy mostly through distributors, publishers may be unaware of the multimillion dollar annual budget that many of us have, or if they are aware, see us as competitors, rather than partners in creating more demand for reading.

Cynthia Orr
Collection Manager
Cleveland Public Library


Dear Holt Uncensored:

I read your newsletter, post American Library Association convention in San Francisco, and noticed you mentioned the Corretta Scott King session being withdrawn from the Marriott. I just wanted you to know if you did not that the American Indian Library Association/OLOS Culture Night was the first to withdraw from that venue as far as I know. Others then followed.

AILA is the smallest ALA affiliate organization. We moved our event to the island of Alcatraz (ie the Rock) for Union issues and other reasons as well. It was a good event and we had a reasonable turn out even with such short notice (approximately 30 days prior). As the event planner and organizer, I received numerous comments from attendees in ALA Council and other venues within the ALA meetings about our event - all were positive.

John D. Berry
AILA Past President


Dear Holt Uncensored:

Hey, what's up with the mighty Amazon? I just went there and noticed that our books are no longer discounted. The deal is, you buy 2 or more things (CD, cassette, book) and get free shipping (if you meet all their criteria).

The small presses on my publisher mail-list are all complaining about slow payments, too.

Peter Goodman
Stone Bridge Press


Dear Holt Uncensored:

Many intelligent folks are faulting the diversity-dimming effect the mega-corp media conglomerates, chains, buying groups, etc. are having on our arts and literature. We should be grateful that AOL hasn't bought Borders and B&N (yet). I'm glad you so vociferously agree that it's up to us little guys to wave the flag for the new guys when it comes to books.

Consequently, I read with distress, in your latest, the letter from Vernon Frazer, the small press and self-published author who's "disappointed" with independent booksellers.

Fireside will host any writer who makes the effort to ask and then show up. Sadly we find that stars get better turn outs but that's America these days. And that reality makes it doubly important that we all try to give a new voice a forum and hopefully an ear or two.

Jim Lewis
Fireside Book Shop
Chagrin Falls, Ohio


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